Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Useful Junk

(This message is one in a series titled “20 Questions With Jesus.”)

Luke 14:34

We were in New York last Sunday and had a great time roaming around the Upper West Side—checking out the shops and enjoying a sunny day. We spent some time in a flea market on Columbus Avenue at 76th Street—it had great shops: everything from furniture to vintage photographs to clothes. My son Ian and I spent some time looking at a collection of artworks made from “found objects.” There were pieces of discarded things in box frames, arranged because they were similar or to tell some story or make a point. They were beautiful. Thimbles, toy soldiers, colored glass.

Now we know that “found objects” is another way of saying “junk,” right? The discarded junk Ian and I were looking at had been picked up and rearranged—the pieces had been redeemed and made into something new. You can’t do that with everything, but when it happens it’s a beautiful thing. That thought will help us wrestle with our text this morning.

We continue our series, 20 Questions with Jesus. We’ve all played some variation of 20 Questions before. One person thinks of a person or a thing and the rest have 20 questions to guess what it is. It’s usually a game we play to kill time on a long journey.

Jesus asked a lot of questions, too. We talk a lot about the sermons of Jesus, or his parables, or the conversations he had with his disciples. This is different from that. Jesus often used questions to help people understand what he was about—or to get people to wrestle with something he taught—or to prompt some kind of action that would show that his followers were learning how to live out what he was teaching.

Between now and Pentecost we’re playing 20 Questions with Jesus. This won’t be a game we play just to kill time on a long drive. The goal is to give us some insight into who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us…as we are each on our own journey of faith and growth and discovery.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are theological—they get at something we’re supposed to know about him and his purposes.

Sometimes the questions are ethical—they get at what we’re supposed to do or how we’re called to live.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are confrontational—they force us to see something in our lives to change or confess or leave behind. That’s the kind of question we have in front of us today.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’ll confess that I don’t like this text very much—this isn’t one of my favorite questions that Jesus asks. It seems snarky and mean—maybe what I don’t like is that it seems so graceless and final.

The context helps a little. In Luke’s gospel this comes right after Jesus told a large crowd of people what it would cost them to be faithful disciples. It’s a hard passage. It talks about carrying the cross and being willing to leave our own families behind to follow Christ. It talks about counting the cost—about making sure we can finish what we start. It has a section that sounds like it comes from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, about considering the strength of your enemy before entering into battle.

See what I mean? This isn’t the easy stuff here. It’s about the hard choices—the total demands of Christian discipleship. And then it gets to our passage: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.”

It looks just slightly different in the way Matthew writes Jesus’ teaching about salt. In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about bad salt being trampled, which isn’t as violent as it sounds. Some salt in ancient times was so unstable as a compound that it would spoil. When it did it was used for paving—people walked on it or trampled it. It was still useful, even if it wasn’t useful as salt anymore.

Our passage starts with: “Salt is good.” We’ve talked before about how useful salt has been though history. It’s been a preservative and an antiseptic. It’s been an aphrodisiac and a rust-remover (there’s a joke there somewhere). In Roman times soldiers were paid in salt, which where we get the word: salary. Mostly, though, we know it as a flavoring. Serving salted vegetables is where we get the word “salad” from.

The rabbis in Jesus’ day talked about Israel as flavorless salt, meaning that it wasn’t fulfilling its end of the covenant God made with Abraham—Israel was meant to be a source of blessing to all the nations. Ancient rabbis, when they wanted to be critical of the way God’s people failed in their calling, described Israel as “insipid salt,” salt which had lost or given up its ability to be salt.

That’s part of the background for our text today. Salt is good, Jesus says, but if it loses its flavor how can you make it salty again? The simple answer is that you don’t –it just gets tossed out. That’s the part that sounds hopeless to me—it sounds like everything is somehow disposable when it fails us or disappoints us. It’s hopeless on its own, if we read it outside what we know about the rest of Jesus’ teaching—outside of the promise Jesus offers to make “all things new.”

Because we all know that things wear out. We buy clothes and shoes and other things, and enjoy them while they’re useful, and then they get replaced. Sometimes we can find new uses for things—we can reshape them or remake them into something different or beautiful—we can make them useful again in some way.

Sometimes that process can be miraculous.

It’s hard to imagine, but there are over 3.5 billion mobile phones in active use today. 290 million in the US and 75 million in the UK—in this country there are more mobile phones in use than there are people. That doesn’t account for the billion and a half unused phones sitting in drawers or tossed in the trash. Those phones have been set aside—they’re essentially high-tech junk.

Hold that thought for a moment.

According to the World Health Organization, each year 300 to 500 million people develop malaria and 1.5 to 3 million–mostly children–die. A simple lab test of blood could diagnose and lead to treatment for many of these patients, but many have no access to health facilities with the right lab equipment. Measuring the shape of blood cells is a key way to diagnose anemia, tuberculosis and malaria—three killers in the developing world. Part of the problem is that there aren’t nearly enough microscopes to handle all the tests.

Aydogan Ozcan is a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. He developed a little tool that can take a blood sample and send its image—in the form of a hologram—to a hospital or a lab…using the camera function in old mobile phones. They take the shapes of the blood cells and reconstruct them for doctors into images they would see in a microscope.

The potential for lifesaving is staggering. Remember that there are a billion or more phones that have been set aside as junk, and that each year 300 to 500 million people develop malaria and 1.5 to 3 million–mostly children–die.

The best part of the story—the miraculous part, really—is that it costs about 10 dollars per phone—about six quid—10 dollars to turn an unused, junked mobile phone into a lifesaving diagnostic tool.

The good news in the hard question Jesus asks us today is that it’s not the end of the story. This passage has to be read alongside God’s redeeming work that begins in the Garden and continues through to today. This text has to be read with the Cross in our sights—Christ’s transforming work for his creation and all people. The good news is that whatever happens—whatever changes come our way—God is working and reshaping and creating, even in the midst of our deepest losses.

Maybe we’re all in the process of becoming useful junk. Maybe we’re all “found objects” like the ones I saw with Ian last week. Maybe the point of the gospel is that all of us can be reclaimed and redeemed and transformed into something useful and beautiful. The key isn’t to focus on what might be lost. The key is to rejoice when we’re found and remade by the one who loves us and calls us to love and serve in his name.

The hope in this hopeless question that Jesus asks is found in the rest of the gospel. I’ve been reading through Henri Nouwen’s devotional during this season of Lent, and in yesterday’s pages he talked about the Prodigal Son, and how happy the father was when he came home. Remember how the dad kissed his son and told him that he loved him over and over again? Nouwen writes:

“This is the voice that Jesus wants us to hear. It is the voice that calls us always to return to the one who has created us in love, and wants to re-create us in his mercy.”

My prayer for all of us is that we’ll listen for God’s voice and his mercy, as he re-creates us into the people and the church he calls us to be. Amen.

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